VOICES-Austin Beutner, the one-time candidate for Los Angeles mayor and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, recalled a funny story during a talk he gave at a breakfast meeting hosted by the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce at Ports O’ Call Restaurant. It was about the time Beutner was delivering a speech on how to make a profit in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Beutner was there as part of a Clinton administration team led by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to help Russia transition from communism to a free-market economy. But suddenly, Beutner realized he’d lost his audience. Bewildered, he turned to his interpreter and asked, “What is it that they don’t understand?”
The translator turned to him and said, “the term ‘making a profit’ literally translates in Russian to ‘illegal taking,’ and here you are speaking about doing something illegal as a way of doing business.”
Beutner majored in economics at Dartmouth College and went on to become the youngest partner of Blackstone private equity firm before he moved to Los Angeles. He knew a lot about making a profit, but not much about communism.
In the decades since, the Russians have learned a great deal about taking a profit and minted a whole new class of billionaires known as “oligarchs.”
One of the 13 named in special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictments, Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed by the Russian press as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” is one of these oligarchs. The indictment alleges that Prigozhin controlled Concord Catering, a company that funded the Internet Research Agency.
The monthly budget for the Internet Research Agency, which included funding for interference in the U.S. elections, exceeded 73 million Russian rubles, or more than $1.25 million. Isn’t capitalism great when it comes back to bite us?
It is quite curious how the promise of digital communications created in this country to bring people together all over the world has now been weaponized to do great harm to our own democracy.
This growing investigation won’t stop here. In fact, the NSA and Congress have previously implicated social media networks that were used to spawn the Arab Spring uprisings. Now it appears the Kremlin, via its surrogates, has been employing these very same social media networks to disrupt our elections by using the same techniques and “algorithms” that savvy marketing and advertising firms use to spread commercial advertising.
Contrary to what Trump calls a “witch hunt,” we are now confronted with a Frankenstein monster of our own making. This has been coming for a very long time, ever since some politicians and others started using social media as a platform to disseminate sanitized, self-promotional eNews to control their public images. Think Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino’s weekly emailed newsletter or a plethora of other chamber of commerce promotions that, while informative, only provide one-sided members-only promotions — and nothing controversial. Have you ever wondered, while reading Buscaino’s selfie-laced eNews, what actually took place at the City Council that week that could end up affecting your neighborhood or how he voted on the latest homeless issue? Or what’s coming up at next week’s council meeting that you might need to know about before the vote is taken?
The same could be said of the Port of Los Angeles’ incessantly positive news releases. One might call them positive propaganda since there is hardly ever any skepticism or bad news. There are no doubts or even much worry that anything has gone wrong.
Even when something does get revealed, there’s always the “positive spin” intended to cover their collective departmental ass. Unfortunately, we have all become accustomed to this tidal wave of self promotional propaganda, and when a publication like this one dares to challenge the “positive spin,” we are accused of “being too negative” or worse, peddling in fake news — a falsehood the port, the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce president and a minority of local Trump supporters have slandered me with recently.
Perpetually producing self-promotional propaganda is a step short of intentionally creating disinformation, creating confusion and disruption in an open society to throw elections. But these producers of positive propaganda and the social media networks who carry them must bear some responsibility like a real publisher does. Considerable care should be given to reporting the good with the bad. Opinion articles are labeled as such because they are opinions and not broadcast as news. And paid-for content also needs to be labeled as such.
It was reported in the New York Times this past January that an obscure American company named Devumi collected millions of dollars by selling Twitter followers and retweets for people who want to “appear” more popular than they actually are. The New York Times found that this one company drew upon an estimated stock of 3.5 million “automated accounts” and provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers. So, the phony news is spun by commercial propagandists, but the analytic reports generated to prove audience followers can also be false.
Going back to the Mueller indictments, what we now see is how vulnerable we as a nation are to foreign hackers who are not afraid to launch attacks in cyberspace — attacks they would never dare risk in a real theater of war.
The Rand Corporation concluded in a recent blog posting that the U.S. already has an extensive set of tools and capabilities for deterrence in cyberspace. “However, these tools are shrouded in a fog of confusion and doubt that prevents the U.S. from using them to the greatest possible effect.”
Our very own smart social media has been used against us and as a tool to spread conflict and discord to make us dumber. It may have ultimately thrown the election to the man who lost the popular vote.
It is my speculation that Putin knows he can control Trump through the Russian money laundering and that Hillary Clinton was seen as a real threat. But only time will tell if the Mueller investigation opens another one of Pandora’s Boxes to expose all our very own demons.
(James Preston Allen is the founding publisher and executive editor of RLnews where this was originally posted. He has been involved in community affairs for more than 40 years in the Los Angeles Harbor Area.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.